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“Nothing is going to change until the society treats us equal.”: Pourakarmikas fight for their basic rights

On July 1, thousands of sanitation workers gathered at different places in Karnataka, commencing an indefinite strike demanding for better working conditions and anti-discrimination policies.

On different occasions, governments in Karnataka forged informal agreements with pourakarmikas from the state to address their demands to grant workers under direct payroll and contract a permanent employment status, ensuring not just better wages, but also dignity. 

But these informal agreements were insufficient, and have failed the workers every time.

It was after the state government and authorities had long ignored their demands for justice that the sanitation workers started a strike again in every district of Karnataka. 

The state of Karnataka has witnessed this kind of protest for many years now. Clifton D’Rozario, National Secretary of All India Central Council of Trade Unions and member of BBMP Pourakarmika Sangha said they have supported the protest because genuine concerns have been ignored by successive governments.

“It is not just about being treated equal by the supervisory staff,” says D’Rozario, “nothing is going to change until society treats the workers equal.”

“When we ask for drinking water, they give us some in bathroom jugs. And they do not hesitate giving us their many days old leftovers”

One of the participants in the strike told us how they are not allowed to even touch the gates and walls of houses in the metropolitan area. “When we ask for drinking water, they give us some in bathroom jugs. And they do not hesitate giving us their many days old leftovers,” she adds. 

Vast majority of the workers on strike are from the Scheduled Caste communities and most of them are women. 

Image: Malini Ranganathan/Instagram

A series of such protests over the years has brought to light that these abuses that are happening in the sector are about caste, says Malini Ranganathan, an American University Professor and geographer working on land, labor and environmental justice. “Such larger labor uprising has brought together workers from different sectors to talk about everyday casteism and gender discrimination they face at work.”

With meager salary, unsound working conditions and everyday discrimination, the workers now refuse to get back to their work unless their concerns are properly addressed. 

One could hear speakers quote Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar at the protest. They also quoted IPD Salappa’s 1976 report, the first of its kind highlighting the trials and tribulations of the community.

The Salappa report advocated for housing facilities, pensions scheme, strict actions against non-Dalit supervisors who abused and mistreated the pourakarmikas, special wage in addition to basic salary to name a few.

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